Jonathan Carroll's World of Pit Bulls and Sci-Fi
Jonathan Carroll has a thing for pit bull terriers. Their anvil-shaped snouts keep snuffling their way into his work. Carroll's books are as tenacious and frisky as his beloved pit bulls; his wildly creative, good-natured novels keep poking into the edges of modern literature and leaving behind little wet paw prints.
Carroll has been publishing for more than 20 years and has a dozen or so books under his belt. He has a cult following among those who go out of their way to find unique, vibrant literature; Jonathan Lethem, Stephen King, and Neil Gaiman are among his fans. But most readers aren't familiar with Carroll's remarkably accessible works. Part of the problem is that booksellers don't know which shelf to put his works on. Are they horror? Are they fantasy? Does he belong with Gabriel García Márquez or Dean Koontz?
Invariably, Carroll's books get shoved into science fiction, which is where most hard-to-categorize fiction ends up. Had it not been filed under sci-fi, this reader never would have stumbled upon Outside the Dog Museum and--picking it up largely on the basis of the title--been sucked into Carroll's world. (He always comes up with killer titles: A Child Across the Sky, Kissing the Beehive, The Panic Hand, Sleeping in Flame, The Land of Laughs, The Wooden Sea.)
Those last two were recently released by science-fiction/fantasy publisher Tor, a house that searches out speculative fiction of the more literary sort, with less emphasis on buxom alien babes and more on the writer's chops. Actually, The Land of Laughs is a reissue of Carroll's 1980 debut, long out of print and much in demand among fans. Despite its age, and the how frequently its theme has been explored by other writers since, Laughs still feels immediate, fresh, and inventive.
Granted, the theme wasn't a new one even in 1980. Thomas Abbey, a schoolteacher and the son of a famous Hollywood actor, sets out to write a biography of his favorite children's-book author, Marshall France. Abbey and his very odd girlfriend Saxony light out for a small town in Missouri, the former home of the now-dead France. Once there, they discover that France may have been a much better writer than they dreamed, and that (insert big, booming voice here) all is not well in this average middle-American town.
What feels fresh about Laughs is the care with which Carroll adds layers to this seemingly simple story. Abbey is not merely searching for the traces of the man who wrote his favorite childhood stories. He is looking for something much deeper, something that will deliver him from his own childhood, his famous absentee father, and his own discomfort with the limelight. Does he find it? Yes and, emphatically, no.
Analyzing Carroll's plots is like peeling an onion--each layer reveals a new one--but his writing itself is clean and effortless. You could breeze through Laughs in an evening. Descriptions such as "he had a Southern accent and reminded me of some character who lives with his dead mama in a rotting mansion and sleeps under a mosquito net" make one want to devour each paragraph just to see what Carroll will gorgeously describe next. He makes the devilishly difficult job of constructing clear, concise fiction look easy.
With The Wooden Sea, Carroll's latest novel, you can see just how difficult that task really is. Which isn't to say that Sea is a bad book; just that the fault lines running through its 300-odd pages are transparent. The fictional tectonic plates just didn't line up on this one, and the strain shows.
It is still an interesting story. Small-town cop Frannie McCabe (who also made an appearance in Kissing the Beehive) finds a dog--a pit bull, natch--who looks as if he's been through several kinds of hell and back. Despite his wife's protest, McCabe adopts the dog. The pet then dies. McCabe buries him. And the dog comes back. But this isn't Pet Sematary redux. While both King's and Carroll's books share the theme of pet resurrection, Sea is about more than being haunted by a dead animal.
Plotwise, McCabe is in for the adventure of his life, full of visitations from younger versions of himself, a chase across time in search of the meaning of it all, and an encounter or two with what may or may not be heavenly beings. The novel's theme, though, is even more ambitious than its mile-a-minute plot, and that may be where the whole thing comes apart. Instead of a dogged focus on one idea--like Laughs' devotion to examining the relationship between parent and offspring--Sea tries to take on too much: mortality and aging, fathers and daughters, redemption.
The result, while still a rollicking good read, lacks the precision that characterizes Carroll's earlier books. It may be that as his popularity slowly but steadily grows, he's beginning to feel pressure to perform. But now might be a good time for Carroll to revisit the spirit of the determined, carefree, mischievous pit bulls of which he is so fond.